Mr. Putin would casually deny it, but Russia has fashioned the ongoing civil conflict in Eastern Ukraine in a manner that suits the Kremlin’s goals. The opening actions of the rebellion were pulled off without too many snags and managed to seize significant political and economic sites throughout the region, ranging from police stations to major railroad junctions. A growing amount of evidence suggests that these seemingly homegrown insurrections were originally led and coordinated by Russian operatives disguised as locals. Videos and eyewitness accounts show large convoys of vehicles packed with armed, uniformed men (many belonging to the Vostok Battalion, of Chechen War notoriety) streaming into Ukraine from over the Russian border. While this isn’t exactly hard evidence of the Kremlin’s direct involvement, it does speak volumes about what entities are fueling the current strife. Despite these occurrences, Putin does not seem interested in invading and annexing the eastern provinces of Ukraine in the same way that he did Crimea. This article discusses why Moscow does not want to absorb Eastern Ukraine, as well as what Russia’s true intensions are.
Although the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic has requested to be incorporated into the Russian Federation, as was Crimea, Moscow has remained somewhat silent to the appeal. Whereas Crimea is strategically significant, wealthy, and willing, Luhansk and Donetsk are strategically unappealing, poor, and split in their loyalties.
Crimea, which hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (along with many other Russian military assets), is of unquestionably vital importance to Moscow’s defense strategy, and therefore could not be lost to a westward-leaning Kiev. Invading Eastern Ukraine would not offer the same strategic advantage. In fact, an incursion into Luhansk and Donetsk would weaken Russia’s position, as much of Russia’s military thinking depends on maintaining a buffer zone between its own borders and NATO. According to this thinking, Russia’s voluntarily pushing its borders geographically closer to western lines of control would prove to be counterproductive.
Another aspect of Russia’s unwillingness to annex Eastern Ukraine involves the economic strain this course of action would entail. When the Russian Federation annexed Crimea, the government promised its newly embraced citizens that Moscow would raise the pensions for the elderly and salaries for public sector workers to match Russian levels. Although Russian pensions are relatively low ($285 per month) compared to their western counterparts, they are considerably higher than what Ukraine’s retirees can expect to see ($160 per month). According to Prime Minister Medvedev, raising pensions for Crimea’s retirees (thought to be about a third of the region’s two million inhabitants) to Russian levels is estimated to cost about $1 billion a year, a modest price for retaining primacy in the Black Sea. But to do the same for Luhansk and Donetsk would be much costlier. Incorporating these regions into the Russian Federation would also increase the population by nearly seven million. Keeping in mind that Eastern Ukraine is more impoverished and its infrastructure is in a greater state of disrepair than what is found in Crimea, one can assume that the yearly cost of bringing the local standard of living up to Russian standards would be much more fiscally burdensome than Moscow’s incorporation of Crimea. Estimates point towards such an action costing at least twice as much.[iii] Moscow would also have to heavily subsidize the region’s coal mines, as Kiev has been doing for years. This reality, coupled with the astronomical costs that would accompany an invasion and long-term occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk, makes an annexation of these provinces economically unwise.
The final reason that Mr. Putin does not want to put boots on the ground is the inevitability of a pro-Ukrainian insurgency. While it is true that pro-Russian forces have seized large amounts of territory and claim to fight for the people of the Donbas region, loyalties in Luhansk and Donetsk remain split between Kiev and Moscow. Most urban areas in eastern Ukraine are predominantly Russian speaking, and, not coincidently, support for annexation into the Federation runs strongest in large cities. But the opposite is true in the countryside. In more rural areas, the majority of the population speaks Ukrainian and identifies with their western brothers.[v] This being the situation, a hypothetical occupation would be subject to ambushes and sabotage carried out by pro-Kiev irregular forces. Supply routes and command and control infrastructure, already the Achilles’ heel of the Russian military, would be constantly strained by insurgent attacks, coupled with pushback from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Stationing occupation forces in hostile territory over an indefinite period of time would eventually strain both military readiness in other key regions (in the Baltics and Caucasus, for instance) and public opinion at home. While Mr. Putin is enjoying a spike in popularity since the annexation of Crimea, an extended, costly counter-insurgency against fellow Slavs would eventually prove to be unpopular with the Russian people. Those brave enough to speak out could draw comparisons between Ukraine and the botched Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Given the state of the Russian economy, Moscow could do without another similarity to the Brezhnev era.
If Russia does not intend to invade and absorb Eastern Ukraine, why is it actively encouraging this insurrection? Moscow stands to gain two particular advantages by stirring up revolt on its borders. The first revolves around the idea that the Maidan Revolution sought to take Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into that of the European Union. As previously stated, maintaining a string of buffer states between Russia and the West is paramount to the Kremlin’s defense policy. This being the case, Moscow cannot tolerate having an influential neighbor like Ukraine turn entirely towards Brussels and Washington. By using Special Forces and volunteer groups from Russia to supply, train, and fight alongside separatist factions, Mr. Putin has been able to cause a severe headache for Kiev while retaining plausible deniability for the chaos, all while leaving his calling card amongst the ruins. In essence, he has used the unrest as a way to communicate to Ukraine’s leaders that there will not be peace unless they are willing to come to Moscow and negotiate a new relationship with Russia; one that the Kremlin finds agreeable. It’s difficult to predict what this new relationship will look like, considering that Kiev will now cast their eyes towards a European future, but Moscow simply will not tolerate a Ukrainian government that is not at least somewhat malleable to Russia’s interests. If Ukraine cooperates with Russia, it is certain that the eastern revolts will fade with time. If Ukraine spites its larger neighbor, the chaos will continue. By feeding the unrest, Moscow manages to keep a hook in Kiev’s mouth, allowing it to pull their victim in whatsoever direction it so chooses.
Another advantage Mr. Putin stands to gain by fueling the conflict is that it has managed to divert the world’s attention and wrath away from the illegal annexation of Crimea. Since the insurrections in Luhansk and Donetsk began, the media’s focus has shifted from scorning the invasion of Crimea towards reporting on the ongoing battles in Eastern Ukrainian cities. The unrest and speculation concerning whether or not Russia will invade Ukraine has changed the international condemnation’s center of gravity. Western diplomatic attention has lately solely addressed a cessation of hostilities in the Donbas region, leaving punishment for the invasion of Crimea in the backseat. Once the conflict in Ukraine settles, spectators will see that the West’s diplomatic capital with Moscow has been spent trying to end hostilities, and the will to do what is necessary to send a strong message concerning its illegal actions in Crimea will have vanished from most European governments. Some of those who are more leery of confrontation will comfort themselves by thinking, “At least they didn’t invade Eastern Ukraine.” By holding the potential of an open conflict for the region over the heads of western leaders, Mr. Putin has made the annexation of Crimea seem more palatable, or the best result out of other, bloodier possible outcomes.
Despite the legitimate fear many have of standing up to the Russian bear, a failure to do so in Ukraine will open the door for future conflicts on the doorstep of Europe. The best way to counter Russia’s military and diplomatic maneuvers is to bolster up the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Ukraine. Continuing to provide diplomatic support is vital, as is sending legal and law enforcement experts to help reform the corrupt, oligarchic system that led to the Maidan revolt in the first place. Building up and supplying Ukraine’s military with western arms (further defense deals with Russia are sure to be complicated from here on out) will take many years, but is pivotal to the preservation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Current deployments of NATO forces to member nations that share a border with Russia are a positive step, and must be continued in order to show the longevity of the West’s resolve to resist further hostile action. The United States would do well to develop ways to counter Russia’s ability to use special operations forces to stir up rebellion among local populaces. Moscow is sure to use similar tactics in the Baltics and Moldova, should it decide to expand its influence further west. Washington must be ready to resist Russia’s efforts next time around.